Reading, Identification, and Vocation

It was the intervention of Caesar Augustus which, one day long ago, saved one of the most celebrated narratives of ancient history. Virgil’s last wish was to burn his epic Aeneid, a work which for C. S. Lewis changed “ the subject from the adolescent theme of heroism to the adult theme of vocation.” [1]  One can only wonder what resonated so deeply in Caesar Augustus to move him to save this narrative, and the ways in which the emperor identified his own vocation with Virgil’s narrative about the foundation of Rome.

The contrast  between Augustus and one of his modern counterparts could not be more poignant. When the Allied forces arrived in Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, they noticed a strange kind of library. It was filled with books about art, architecture, photography and histories of wars. But the report of the US Army Counterintelligence Corps noticed an eloquent gap in Hitler’s library:  “it was noticeably lacking in literature and almost totally devoid of drama and poetry.” [2] The Führer was not as moved by great narratives as the emperor once was; Hitler’s spirit was forged in a different kind of arena, and one can only wonder how the lack of literary oxygen dwarfed Hitler’s soul, though maybe superior in military skill, in contrast to his ancient colleague. It seemed like Hitler tasted just the wrong measure of the literary spring which, for Alexander Pope, should either be drunk abundantly or not drunk at all:

A little learning is a dangerous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring;
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain
And drinking largely sobers us again.[3]

However much Augustus or Hitler may have read, we all know that to read is a curious experiment. It immerses us in alternative worlds; it enlarges our imagination and our ability to identify with others. When we see ourselves in an epic journey from Troy to Rome which, in 10,000 lines of Latin poetry, stretches our ability to conceive the world, feel it in a particular journey, and color it from an alternative perspective, we consider scenarios which would never cross our path in other ways. We experience the heroic, the virtuous, the tragic, and this trying-out enriches our posture before the ordinary and prosaic. As we play out as heroes, to use Lewis’ phrases, this imaginary weight-lifting enriches our understanding of our own vocations.

We may be statesmen or not, poets or poets-to-be, but an illuminating test for the fabric of our vocation is the kind of reading in which we develop it. It is hard for us to concentrate in long narratives today, as accustomed we are to headline reading and internet browsing. But a sustained engagement of literature like the Aeneid or Moses’ discourse in Deuteronomy or the chronicles of King David pays off, even if often we can’t trace the direct practicality they can bring to our work. But as we see Ulysses facing his journey across the sea, or Jesus his journey to the cross, something inside us grows, and we arrive at our unheroic challenges larger, more vocationally robust, somehow more heroic.

René Breuel

[1]     Carol Zalenski, C. S. Lewis’s Aeneid, The Christian Century, vol. 128 N. 12, 14 June 2011.

[2]      Timothy W. Ryback, Hitler’s Private Library: The Books that Shaped his Life (London: Vintage Books, 2010).

[3]    Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism


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